Pop’s Southern Fried Catfish
The star of every fish fry
The fish fry, or cookout has been a staple in Black communities since the days of slavery. All over the United States, families, friends and communities gather and celebrate, no matter the occasion, through food. Of course, the fish fry or cookout is not exclusive to the Black community, nor to this country, as I have found through my travels that the concept is popular worldwide. My Father, Ulysses Birt Jr, was the king of the fish-fry. The eldest of 7, my Aunt’s and Uncle’s and seemingly countless cousins would gather several times a year when we were kids and heavily consume while running around burning calories with boundless energy playing hide and seek and last tag (fingers crossed!).
Besides BBQ, fried Catfish was always the star. The crunchy exterior and the meaty, tender interior puts these in a class by themselves. Catfish is actually a good, clean source of Omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Of course, frying isn’t the healthiest option, but, I’ve altered Pop’s recipe slightly to shallow and not deep fry. I stick to the cornmeal only method, despite most other recipes using flour mixed with the cornmeal, which makes for a heavier coating, which many people do like. Getting the temperature of the oil is key as too low will make the fish take on too much oil and too high will cook it too fast leaving the interior watery and uncooked. Using an infrared thermometer is a great help.
Pop’s Southern fried Catfish serves as the backdrop to floods of memories for so many people. Even in families there are ongoing debates about who fries the best fish (“I don’ like dey fish, dey use too much seasonins!”). I never heard anything but praise for my Pop’s catfish and I’ve tried to carry on the tradition through the years. Number one rule: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, so I’ve only changed the seasoning (Slap yo Mama rocks!) and, as I mentioned before, shallow frying. The leftovers keep for 2 days in the fridge in an airtight container, although, good luck with leftovers. Avoid any fish that has a fishy smell, using the frozen has been both pretty consistent and economical. Buying fresh directly from the fish monger is always advisable, a time or two I’ve bought in the prepackaged fresh section to very disappointing results. Give it the smell test, bad catfish can ruin everything. French fries, coleslaw, a squeeze of lemon, some tarter sauce and, don’t judge me, but I still love ketchup with my fried catfish. Hot sauce too!
Pop’s Southern Fried Catfish
1lb. Catfish fillets
1 Cup Cornmeal
1 1/2 Cup oil for frying (Canola, Peanut, Vegetable or Lard)
your favorite creole or cajun seasoning (I use slap yo mama…link) https://amzn.to/3dkMEKt
A ziploc or paper bag
Infrared thermometer for cooking, link https://amzn.to/3uasOZ5
1. In a ziploc or brown paper bag add cornmeal. Set aside
2. Thaw (if needed) wash and pat dry catfish fillets and, using a sharp knife, cut into bite-sized pieces
3. Season fish on a wire rack with parchment placed below to catch the excess
4. Heat oil to 350F degrees (176C) in a large frying pan on medium-high heat
5. Using tongs, dredge fish in seasoned cornmeal, shake off excess, and carefully place in hot oil. Do not drop fish rather gently lay down into the oil away from you.
6. Fry fish until golden brown. 3-5 minutes depending on the size. Fish cooks quickly so keep your eye on them and make sure not to overcrowd your pan as the fish will sweat and your oil will drop significantly in temperature.
7. Remove from pan and sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Serve hot or keep warm in a 250F (121C) oven until done frying
Thank You Pop!
Happy Easter and Happy Passover Everybody!
Ever had a fish fry?
Oh my God, good this article! Thank you Mr. Birt Jr and III for recording this tradition for posterity. In my family it was my uncle Ben Porter Jr. who had the fish fry. I stood by him all day so I could get it while it was so hot you had to chew it with your mouth open. We lived near rivers and lakes so ‘the fellahs’ as my Uncle would say would bring over whatever they caught. My mom was terrible at cooking it but she was great at catching catfish. She left the cooking to her baby brother and the cleaning to her children (yikes) so I felt very entitled to eat as much as I wanted.
Oh thank you, Chris for reminding me of the loving tradition of the family fish fry. So when you cookin’ some, Chris?
I’ll bring the ketchup and hotsauce.
Hey Miche! I had to make sooo much for the video shoot, I’ve been in Catfish heaven for days! But anytime!
My twenty years as a vegan will preclude me from trying your recipe, but I do recall enjoying some catfish in south Florida years ago. What I’m really enjoying are your stories – so glad you’re back to writing them. Please keep ’em coming!
Thanks Laura, I really appreciate it!
You have me salivating, and it’s only 8:30 in the morning. Can’t remember when I last had fried catfish, my favorite fish of all times. Enjoyed the pictures. Sure miss the folks😢
Thanks Beverly. I know you’ve enjoyed Pop’s Catfish many times in the past!